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Best of Alan Krigman

Gaming Guru

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Why Players Seem to Do Worse at Games that Should be Better

26 April 2004

Blackjack and craps are casino games which let players make wagers having extremely low house advantage. With Basic Strategy, blackjack buffs can cut the edge to roughly half a percent depending on the rules in force. Betting Pass and Come or Don't Pass and Don't Come, then taking or laying Odds, craps fans can trim the edge below this level. Sadly, solid citizens graduating to these games, including bettors who know how to keep the bosses at bay, often find their sessions no more and sometimes less rewarding than they were at the higher-edge tables and machines they believed they'd bequeathed to the bezonians.

The explanation lies in failing to adjust for the volatility -- the bankroll swings characteristic of the various games. Think of volatility in terms of payoffs. Most wins at blackjack are for even-money. Naturals are exceptions but still only pay 3-to-2; likewise, splits and doubles, even combined, usually involve gains or losses of just two units -- occasionally a few more. Pass and Come bets at craps pay between 1-to-1 and 2-to-1; Don't Pass and Don't Come start at about 0.5-to-1 and rise to 1-to-1.

Most other table games and nearly all slots swing far more wildly owing to payout "schedules" featuring ranges of returns from money-back through giant jackpots, all for the same nominal bet. The immediate consequence of low volatility in ostensibly more favorable games is that you have to risk a lot to win a lot. And, generally, you have to luck out not on one propitious shot but in a series of wagers of escalating size during what proves to be a run of good fortune. This isn't to advocate aggressively raising bets in these games. Wager amounts that keep the game exciting without bringing on a coronary. In doing so, recognize that if you're accustomed to an environment with high volatility, you may unconsciously and erroneously conclude it's possible to earn a big profit making the same small or moderate bets in every round.

This false perception may cause you to set your sights on goals that are simply unattainable in low-volatility situations. It may be appropriate, although not necessarily wise, to play machines or jackpot-oriented table games with the idea of investing a sum you figure you can always raise, hoping for long playing time and money you know you're not likely to amass in any other way.

For instance, at the slots, you might be willing to go as deeply as $500 into the hole, betting $1 per spin, expecting at least four hours of action, and not quitting earlier with anything less than $5,000 on the credit meter. ("I didn't come all the way here to make a crummy $200.") The four hour goal is feasible. Bets of $1 don't seem excessive. And, while the chance of hitting the $5,000 target is small, the opportunity is in your face on every round. More, the dual objectives aren't necessarily incompatible. On the other hand, blackjack bets averaging $100 or more are needed to realistically project session profits in the desired range, but a $500 stake is likely to be history before the ice melts in your Moxie or Mountain Dew. Conversely, a $500 bankroll has a reasonable chance of buying four hours of action with bets averaging $5 or $10. However, bets this size won't boost a $500 buy-in to a $5,000 cash-out. Blackjack buffs betting $10 per hand, who aren't content with $200, $300, or $400 profit, may not be doomed to defeat. But they're candidates for later lamenting having been ahead before giving it all back -- and then some.

Similarly at craps. Betting $5 on Pass and taking triple odds, then making two Come bets with odds for the same amount, can expose a player to a hit of $60 or slightly more, yet bring in no more than $35 on any one throw. A $500 bankroll is marginally adequate for a long session with these bets. Picture, though, how hot a table would have to be for those $23 to $35 wins to offset the $60 losses and add up to $5,000 in earnings.

Where does that leave a player with a modest bankroll in low-edge games like these? With a good chance at winning what may seem meager in the heady milieu of the casino, but bountiful back at home. It's as the illustrious illuminator of luck and lucre, Sumner A Ingmark, laconically limned:

 

If your wallet's bigger than your britches,
You've defied what economics teaches.

Alan Krigman

Alan Krigman was a weekly syndicated newspaper gaming columnist and Editor & Publisher of Winning Ways, a monthly newsletter for casino aficionados. His columns focused on gambling probability and statistics. He passed away in October, 2013.
Alan Krigman
Alan Krigman was a weekly syndicated newspaper gaming columnist and Editor & Publisher of Winning Ways, a monthly newsletter for casino aficionados. His columns focused on gambling probability and statistics. He passed away in October, 2013.